Opera House Cup at 40 -August 2012

by: Joshua Balling

photography by: Jim Powers

It all began on a humid Sunday evening back in July 1973. Sitting around a patio table at the Opera House restaurant just a block from Nantucket Harbor, some of the island’s finest sailors were not happy.

There’s no race for wooden sailboats, they lamented to Opera House owner Gwen Gaillard, no way for the stewards of the classic, single-hulled nods to a different age to test their skills – and their boats – and have a little fun in the process.

Gaillard, who died in 2005 and whose restaurant lives on only in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to dine or drink there, was never one to back away from a challenge. She offered to throw the post-race party and donate the trophy – a sterling-silver wine bucket – if the wooden-boat aficionados decided to put a race together. After a few more drinks, it sounded like a great idea, and the Opera House Cup was born.

“I was just a guy living on Nantucket with a little wooden boat back in 1973 when the first one happened. It was a small event, but it led to greater things,” said Eric Urbahn, who helped the late Chick Walsh, proprietor of 21 Federal restaurant – now gone as well – develop the unique scoring system that leveled the playing field and allowed wooden boats of all shapes and styles to compete against one another.

That first year, there were 18 boats in the race: a dozen from Nantucket, four from Martha’s Vineyard and two from Connecticut – including Mariner, the winner, skippered by Bob Tiedemann – who later brought Gleam to the Opera House and won again. Tiedemann died in May 2006.

“I was just a guy living on Nantucket with a little wooden boat back in 1973 when the first one happened. It was a small event, but it led to greater things.” ~ Eric Urbahn
“That story about how the race started, it’s absolutely true,” said Walsh’s wife Mary. “It really grew out of the absolute love of wooden sailboats that Gwen had. She and Chick sat at the table, and conceptualized the idea of a race just for wooden boats. To the day she died, that’s how she wanted to see the race.”

“Bob Tiedemann was my uncle. Mariner was my family’s boat,” said Cedar Poirier, who sailed seven Opera House Cups aboard Gleam, and later raced on a number of 12meters and the schooner Whitehawk. “My grandmother and mom and sister and uncle used to sail and take care of Mariner. It was a real family affair. Growing up on Mariner and being a part of wooden boats from such a young age and seeing how my uncle restored Gleam and Northern Light and other boats, he inspired me. Wooden boats become a part of your life somehow. They have character.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Opera House Cup, which over the last four decades has grown into one of the premier wooden sailboat races on the East Coast, and now caps off Nantucket Race Week, a nine-day salute to sailing of all kinds, by all abilities. It annually draws more than 50 wooden boats from several classes, ranging from island-built Alerions like 2006 winner Owl to classic 12-meters like Valiant, Heritage and Columbia that once ruled the waves on an international level. Newer wooden boats that pay tribute to their forebears above the waterline but take advantage of the latest advances in engineering and technology also play a big part, like last year’s winner Equus, a 46-foot W-Class; and the second-place finisher White Wings, a 76-foot W.

Winners are decided based on a complex formula that combines a boat’s rating (a numerical interpretation of how well it should compete) with its actual finish time. There is also a penalty for boats that have previously won the race, in an attempt to further even the field.

“Chick was always happy to see an Alerion win. That was because of the handicap. It recognizes the best sailors, and the best captains, not necessarily the most money, or the
fastest boat,” Mary Walsh said.

While both Gaillard and Chick Walsh are now gone, the spirit of the race they helped found lives on, and continues to celebrate the mystique – and beauty – of the wooden boat.

“You can view sailing on Nantucket as having its heyday as a seasonal thing, then start to fade, then start to come back,” said Nick Judson, former executive director of Nantucket Community Sailing and a longtime race official. “But the Opera House Cup has always been there. It’s the one time everyone bands together for and celebrates not only sailing, and the past of sailing, but also the future. These people put a lot of effort into keeping these boats alive for future generations.

“What is interesting to me about sailing on any boat, is that it’s a great feeling once you reach that balance point and are just cruising along. But when you’re on a classic, when you hit that point, it’s special. It’s one of those things that allows sailing to really transcend time. You hear those creaking sounds, it gives it a very cool sort of feeling. It brings you back. You almost expect to see someone about ready to take a Nantucket sleighride,” he said.

There is something particularly magical about a wooden boat. It is alive in ways its fiberglass brethren could never hope to imitate. It forgives mistakes by its master in ways newer, more rigidly constructed boats can’t.

ReMain Nantucket founder Wendy Schmidt skippered Equus to victory last year. She owns two other boats, one wooden, one fiberglass.

“Selene is fiberglass, and is a super-cruising and racing boat, and we love her. Equus – and Mischief (an Alerion), on the other hand – seem to have something more than the ability to sail well. For me, wooden boats have soul. There is something about the material, and the way it was formed, that breathes in a different way, and touches us and the water in a different way,” said Schmidt, who only began sailing five years ago.

“In my mind, wooden boats have a softness to them – to the touch, at the helm – that is distinct from modern aluminum, fiberglass or carbon-fiber boats. Maybe it’s partly psychological, but it’s a little like what it feels like to be on the water at all. To be aboard a wooden boat on the water is to be even more closely connected to the elements than you are in other kinds of boats. Wood expands and contracts; it really does breathe, and creak and groan. It has a life to it that sailors can sense, and a natural imprecision in its construction that people who appreciate the beauty of wooden boats understand intuitively. It’s very subtle, a perfect kind of imperfection.”

Wooden boats often inspire – even require – fanatical care and massive infusions of cash, but reward the “boatstruck” with epic days under sail, a feeling of being one with the wind and water, and provide fodder for countless stories on those winter days that seem to stretch forever between sailing seasons.

But there is also something less concrete, more existential about wooden boats, perhaps a connection to the past that seems more and more fleeting as the 21st century unfolds before us. It is something the Opera House Cup is trying to keep alive.

“Classic boats are similar to Nantucket itself. There is architectural beauty in the form,” said summer resident Harvey Jones, whose Mustang is a sister boat to Schmidt’s Equus, and finished second in 2010 and fourth in 2009. “They are romantic, in terms of beauty and integrity.”

Urbahn, who has sailed in numerous Opera House Cups and plans to return to the island for the 40th, agreed.

“I took a fiberglass boat around the world. I loved that boat,” said the former island architect who moved to Maine several years ago. “A wooden boat hurts your wallet, it hurts your knees for all that sanding. There’s an awful lot of hours that go into it for so few hours of pleasure. But somehow those hours are more worth it because of that. You hear all the cliches about wooden boats having souls, but there’s something to it. A wooden boat is the most perfect combination of science and art there is.”

Pretty heavy stuff, but then again, wooden boats are more than just a hobby for most who own and covet them. They border on obsessions, and have convinced otherwise perfectly sane men and women, entrepreneurs and model parents, to forsake mortgage payments, youth-soccer games and job opportunities when confronted with the opportunity to possess the perfect wooden boat.

“Wooden boats are just beautiful objects. They seem to have a personality that goes beyond their fiberglass equivalent,” said island author and historian Nat Philbrick, who in recent years has sailed his two wooden boats – Marie J. and Phebe – in the Opera House Cup.

“They’re almost a member of the family in a way. As a consequence, they are expensive and have their own personality. It’s definitely a labor of love.”

In the early years, the race was nothing of the spectacle it has become today. A few boats, a few more sailors, a passion for sailing and fun, but little more. But it was enough. And the sailors kept coming back each August, even as many of the boats themselves headed for more popular sailing ports. Today, many of the 12-meters are owned by charter companies, and the race itself caps off a week of events that draws sailors and vacationers from all over the world. Sailing is now more than ever a sport of the wealthy.

“To be honest, the early Opera House Cup races were like a Model T Ford, designed for the masses even if there were just a few around who could drive one. The modernday races are way more BMW,” said island photographer Terry Pommett, a waiter at the Opera House in the early years and Chick Walsh’s college roommate. “That’s not a great analogy because there are still a lot of unsung funkadelics out there. The winner in 2010 was the 37-foot Totem, with an inexperienced crew. So in that sense the egalitarian spirit lives on.

“But the vibe today is so different. It’s not a down-home block party anymore. The race was so intrinsically tied to the terroir of the restaurant, after-dinner gatherings on the patio with lots of loosey-goosey sailors and hangers-on and Gwen in the middle at her table, laughing, off-color jokes galore, a rollicking decorless good time, postproper dining hours. Gwen always resisted the inclusion of corporate participation, even though she was going broke trying to keep the thing going. It’s good and bad, what’s happened,” said Pommett, who has photographed almost every single race.

“What can you say? Change is inevitable. It’s a fabulous coming together of magnificent wooden boats of all sizes and everyone has a chance to win, theoretically. The original Opera House Cup feeling is long gone, as is the restaurant, as is the visible memory of Gwen on this island. But in spite of all my nostalgic memories, it is still my favorite day of the year, every year.”

There’s no question that in its 40-year history, the Opera House Cup has grown in size and stature, but at its core the race has always remained true to its humble origins and the heritage of those wooden boats. At the same time, it has become the backbone of Nantucket’s annual Race Week, and a major fundraiser for Community Sailing, which offers Nantucketers of all ages a wide variety of sailing programs each year.

“The management of the Opera House Cup was handed over to Nantucket Community Sailing in 1998 by Gwen and Chick. We are honored to be able to carry on its traditions. The Opera House Cup is a very special and unique regatta in many ways. It is most probably the oldest classic wooden-boat regatta in the country, it is one of the largest wooden boat regattas, and it is unique in having one overall winner across many different types and sizes of wooden boats,” said Community Sailing chief executive Diana Brown.

“It is so exciting to see the harbor filled with gorgeous wooden sailboats for this one week in August. It takes a tremendous amount of care, maintenance and endless work to keep these boats
on the water. The owners of these boats are a special breed of people, and we salute their passion for maintaining these lovely yachts and making the effort to bring them to Nantucket for the Opera House Cup.”

“Maintaining the integrity of the Sunday race is very much appreciated, and while there have been some leaks in the tradition that I know Gwen would not like, that’s just the way of progress, or whatever it is,” Mary Walsh said. “As far as the whole Race Week, with all its races, the sponsorships and big money, that’s never what the feeling of the old race was about. In that vein, it’s a very different thing. It’s wonderful to have all the participation we have, but if I could be the voice of Gwen or Chick, in the conception of the race, the idea was always to be about wooden boats, the beauty and love of those boats.

“The race always fell at the absolute worst time for us, when Chick was busiest at the restaurant. But there was something about it he absolutely loved,” she continued. “He spent hours on it anyway. It was a labor of love on Chick’s part, and Gwen and Chick stayed very close on the meaning of the Opera House race, and keeping it traditional. They always did.”

And while other ports have become bigger havens for wooden boats over the past four decades – Vineyard Haven and Marblehead come to mind, with Newport, R.I. the East Coast Mecca of woodenboat sailing – the Opera House Cup still draws the cream of the crop to Nantucket each August. It remains the most traveled-to wooden boat regatta in the country.

Perhaps because there is something undeniably special about the race.

“It’s really hard to concentrate when you’re out there because there are all these beautiful boats around. I just find it a fun visual spectacle,” Philbrick said. “The racing is fun. I’m a one-design sailor, so I’ve never figured out how racing different kinds of boats really works, but that just adds to the air of mystery. Often you don’t know the results until the winner is announced. It’s high drama.”

Donald Tofias founded the W-Class boat company that built Equus, Mustang and two larger siblings, the 76-foot Wild Horses and White Wings, which finished second last year. The 37-foot Race Horse is also part of the W-Class stable. In all, W-class boats captured five of the top nine spots in the 2011 race.

“There is a great tradition of the wooden boats of New England sailing out to Nantucket to race in Nantucket Sound in a perfect bay. It’s a great venue for showing off the great old yachts and the new ‘Spirit of Tradition’ yachts too. We build on the shoulders of giants. The great designers – Nathanael Herreshoff, William Fife, Olin Stephens – are who inspire us today. Where else but the Opera House Cup can see all the yachts spanning over 100 years?”

Nantucketer Tom Dickson has competed in numerous Opera House Cups, and sailed on two boats that have won the race a total of four times.

There is something undefinable, but definitely special, about the race, he said.

“The simple answer is that there is really no platform for boats of those classes to race in,” he said. “The technology has changed so much. The development of fiberglass, steel, sails of Kevlar and Mylar. The Opera House is trying to get back to more of a staid era, and there are so few races that allow wooden boats to get out and show just how good they were and still are.”
But it’s about more than competition, Dickson said.

“There is so much more character in wooden boats. Technology does not dominate the wooden designs. They are much more beautiful. Cruising is built into the design. It’s not all about pure speed. For me, it’s the look of the boats, the beautifully-tapered bows and sterns that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the fastest boat. There’s just something about a wooden boat. There is a feeling and character never captured by modern boats.”

But the Opera House Cup isn’t always a sunny Sunday sail. At its heart, it’s an offshore sailboat race, a true competition. And over the years, it’s had its share of drama.

Canceled only once – in 1998 for lack of wind – the Cup has been up for grabs in weather both fair and foul. In 1999, the skipper of one boat got knocked around in rough seas and ended up breaking his leg. In the same race, the 32-foot Tomahawk was, by most accounts, leading the race near the finish when it stopped to pluck another boat’s overboard crew member from the less than placid waters. The heroic move ended up costing the boat time, and it finished two minutes behind the eventual winner. Several races have been in doubt even after the starting gun due to a lack of wind. But that’s all part of the drama.

“This is ocean racing. This is serious. If you’re going to go out and compete, you need a boat and a crew that is ready to compete. You never really know what it’s going to be like,” Judson said.

“One of the Opera House Cups I remember the most was the one that came just before Hurricane Bob,” Mary Walsh said. “The race went off without a hitch, and we were in the middle of the big post-race party at the Nantucket Shipyard, when all of a sudden there was all this frantic chatter about what was coming our way. All these big, beautiful boats were just sitting here, and Nantucket is not the best port to ride out a storm, so these guys, who were in the midst of having a great time at the party, were frantically boarding up or getting ready to head for safe harbor in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard. After doing the race, then partying, they had to sail for hours to where they’d be safe.”

The weather isn’t always optimum for racing Opera House Sunday, but it’s rarely dull.

“Typically, you know you’re going to get some breeze. Traditionally it blows. There’s a lot of wind. But the thing about the Opera House is that it brings in very good, competent sailors. And the skippers aren’t going to take the boats out unless they feel they can handle it. That’s why some years, we may have 80 boats registered, but only 50 show up at the starting line,” Judson said.
Whatever the conditions, it’s a day Mary Walsh looks forward to with joy and sadness.

“It’s a great thing. That day is always a sentimental and tender day for my family. It was such a love of Chick’s, such a big part of his life. I cherish that day with fond memories. I’m grateful it’s been kept alive for that reason alone,” she said.

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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